The transatlantic rap group celebrates blurred identities and the rise of the mongrel.
In 2009, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a highly popular TED talk called ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ - what happens when complex people and situations are subsumed into one simple narrative. She recalls that as a seven-year-old in Nigeria, the stories she wrote featured characters “white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples.” This wasn’t an act of imagination, she just thought that because all the books she read featured white people, all stories must be about white people. When I heard that, my thoughts went back to my own early attempts at storytelling. The characters all had names like Kurt and Rachel. Much like Adichie, despite never having seen a white person in real life, 12 year old me had internalised the idea that the universal experience was white - that if it wasn’t a story about colonialism or racism or slavery, then it had to be a story about white people.
The white experience as ‘universal’ is only one ‘Single Story’. There are many others - the lazy, criminal black man in inner-city America, the hard-working Asian model minority, the glorious whites-only heaven that was pre-multicultural Britain. In 2016, the Single Story dominates our global politics - whether it’s Trump’s ‘alien invaders’ narrative that demonises Mexicans, Muslims and other immigrants, or Brexit’s ‘alien invaders’ narrative that demonises Poles, Muslims, and other immigrants. In India, our government pushes the ‘Pakistan is enemy number one’ story to whip up nationalist votes before an important state election. In Pakistan, the Army responds with the tired old ‘Indian conspiracy’ narrative that has been their go-to for over 50 years. With our present looking bleak, and the future even bleaker, it’s tempting to look to a single explanation for all our problems. But as Adichie reminds us, “Many stories matter.”
Swet Shop Boys, Himanshu Suri and Riz Ahmed
Which is why it is so refreshing to come across a record like the Swet Shop Boys’ debut full length Cashmere - a record that not only muddles up the many stories it inhabits, but does so gleefully. On Cashmere, Indian-American rapper Himanshu Suri (Heems) and British-Pakistani rapper Riz Ahmed (MC Riz), revel in the many contradictions that come with a globalised existence. In her essay for the Nikesh Shukla edited anthology The Good Immigrant (which also features an essay by one Riz Ahmed), music critic and freelance journalist Kieran Yates writes that “Being a British Asian in 2016 is about being in on the joke when it comes to reclaiming parts of our identity you’re supposed to feel ashamed about.” Heems and Riz take that idea one step further by joyfully staking claim to identities others would deny them, taking what they want as they roll through different spaces and cultures. For these two, wedding Shehnais, Roland 808s, Greek epics, Punjabi rebel poets, Pakistani qawwals, New York rap and UK grime are all part of the same story - their story. “It's about celebrating people who don't fit into neat binaries that are imposed on us in this increasingly globalised world, you know,” Riz tells me over the phone from New York. It’s the end of a busy and exhausting press day for the duo, but they answer my questions politely, as if they hadn’t been asked the same thing a hundred times already. “Black or white, Eastern or Western, Hindu or Muslim, Indian or Pakistani,” he continues. “These are all over-simplifications that don't reflect the complexity of our realities. So this album is a celebration of the mongrel, and most people in this day and age can relate to that feeling of being an insider-outsider.”
The Swet Shop Boys origin story is fairly well known by now. They first got in touch on Twitter, as so many of us do, drawn together by a shared interest in diaspora and rap. They actually met for the first time in 2012, when Riz flew down to New York for work. Then in 2015, when Heems spent a couple of months in London, they recorded the Swet Shop EP. The 13 minute record was a proof-of-concept, an experiment to see what sort of magic the two could conjure when they were in a room together. The results, though patchy, were quite satisfactory overall. On a bedrock of jagged beats drawing from hip-hop, grime and Qawwalis, the two MCs effortlessly brought together all their myriad influences into one club-friendly, hyper-literate pot of multicultural broth.
They first got in touch with each other on Twitter
Then, earlier this year, Heems flew to London for a gruelling five-day recording session with Riz and Englishman producer Redinho. Riz describes his approach as “meticulous, drafting and redrafting lyrics.” Heems, on the other hand, is well known for shooting from the hip when in the studio. “It was an interesting process because we had similar backgrounds coming into the project but we differ slightly in the way we approach writing,” he says. “He tends to write a lot more and working with me, he started to freestyle more. So recording in a room and not on the internet was a big part of this.”
That difference in approach is also representative of the differences between the UK and the US hip hop scenes. There’s a reason that despite sharing a common language, trans-atlantic rap collaborations are thin on the ground. “In the UK we have a different kind of musical heritage in a way,” says Riz. “We're influenced by the Americans and they're influenced by us for sure, but I think American rap is influenced by the soul-funk-jazz-blues, that tradition. Whereas in the UK, we call it MCing rather than rapping in the first place because it comes more from the concept of rave culture - drum n bass, jungle, garage, dubstep, that kind of thing. Which is a different kind of setting.”
On Cashmere Heems and Riz make great use of those differences, with Heem’s languid, drawling flow acting as a foil to Riz’s razor sharp, hyper-literate ratatat bars. On the final track Din-E-Ilahi, it seems like they’ve even exchanged approaches, with Riz freestyling and Heems with a carefully crafted pre-written verse. They’re helped along by Redinho’s production, which samples and steals from across the spectrum of South Asian, New York and London sounds to create an entirely new sound both familiar and universal. There are handclaps and sitars, 808 thumps and the harmonium, and vocal interludes that sample Riz’s parents, Malala Yousef, and recently murdered Pakistani social media icon Qandeel Baloch. Redinho approached the task like an academic dissertation, researching not just the sounds but the stories behind the South Asian instruments he samples. “Some of it was sampled, but some of it was also played,” says Riz. “Like the harmonium on Tiger Hologram was like a synthesised harmonium that he played on his computer.”
One of the main themes on the record is ‘Islamophobia’
“I'm a huge fan of Shiv Kumar Batalvi and Riz is a huge fan of Aziz Mian,” says Heems, of the album’s multi-civilisational mash-up aesthetic. “So we took these traditions of poetry from Pakistan and Punjab that we came up appreciating alongside Biggie and Tupac and other rappers and we just threw them in this pot that Redinho had prepared with his beats. It also speaks to this point that poetry is part of our culture too and Qawwali and rap aren't too different for us. It felt like you've got your posse out there doing handclaps, you've got your jugalbandi, which is a battle. So it was just about finding comfort from our Western influences into our Eastern influences. I think the term we used a lot was this idea of connecting dots. It was about, these are things we're interested, these are the things we're capable of and these are things we want to do. How do you connect all of those.”
One of the main themes on the record is Islamophobia and how it taints young Muslims’ interactions with the state, the media and their fellow citizens. On songs like T5, Shottin’ and Phone Tap they tackle racial profiling in all the forms it takes - ‘random’ checks at airports, no fly lists, police surveillance and entrapment. Shoes Off talks about racial conflict through the perspective of US military recruits and young Muslims who run off to join IS. References to the Indo-Pak tensions (the record name refers to both the Kashmir dispute and the luxury fabric that historically comes from the state) and anti-black racism also bring in the xenophobic turn world politics has taken in recent years. “It's very unfortunate that both in the Western context of Trump and Brexit and in the South Asian context of India and Pakistan, the album seems timely,” says Heems. “I would prefer if it wasn't to an extent, but it speaks to the fact that these are things we have always thought about and dealt with. For me, I've always witnessed communal sentiments in my family growing up and I've always been rebelling against that. It seems like now is another time when we need to rebel against the idea of division. I hope this project kind of stands as an idea of what that kind of solidarity looks like and what sort of benefits that brings”.
Their latest single ‘Din-E-Ilahi’ has handclaps, sitars and harmoniums
“It's a pendulum,” adds Riz. “There's a lot of different factors at play but I think a big part of it is the fact that Western industrialised economies have had their big growth spurt already. The rate of growth is going to be much slower and any gains now feel like a zero-sum game. So now if I have more, you can't also have more. So this idea has taken hold in the wake of the financial crash because rather than address the structural inequality in our economy, we've basically doubled down on preserving the privilege of the 0.01% and the result is that they've sold us on the lie that there isn't that much to go around and you need to fight each other for it. That's led to a rise in tribalism and a lot of polarisation.”
Elsewhere, the tongue-in-cheek Zayn Malik playfully makes the case for more positive South Asian representation in media, with the lyrics “Look Zayn Malik's got more than eighty virgins on him/ There's more than one direction to get to paradise”. “It's definitely something we didn't have a lot of growing up,” says Riz. “Whenever there was someone brown on TV, my mum would kind of call me downstairs shouting "Aaja, aaja, Asian hai!" And then in the 90s we had a sudden kind of rush of cultural victories in a way, with Goodness Gracious Me, Bend it Like Beckham, Guru Josh on top of the charts, Prince Naseem Hamed dominating sports entertainment. But that kind of really dissipated after 9/11. The community retreated into religiosity or the insecurity of being under security.”
“In the US, there was Fisher Stevens pretending to be Indian in short circuit, there was a guy in Sprint ad who went one minute, two minute, three minute in a stereotypical accent, we had Apu on the Simpsons and that was pretty much it,” adds Heems. “We didn't really have a lot of visibility in media or a lot of aspirational role models to look up to. Part of why this project was really interesting to me is because I grew up looking at the UK for what a desi rapper or a desi punk rocker or a desi comedian would look like. I didn't see that a lot in the US. And that's what made me study in London, that's why I went to SOAS in 2005 to see this place where people make careers and lives and culture out of what I'm interested in. I constantly looked across the pond for that, so that's what made this album interesting for me.”
Another leitmotif throughout the album is references to the duo’s shared Mughal cultural heritage, culminating in a song named after Akbar the Great’s short-lived syncretic religion Din-E-Ilahi. This is particularly important at a time when that historical narrative is being challenged in both countries - Pakistan ignores that heritage in favour of an Arabisation narrative, while Hindu nationalists in India dismiss the Mughals as ‘foreign invaders’. “I think the Mughal thing was something that I grew up with a lot,” says Riz. “My father would tell me about the Mughal Kings and hark back to this time when there was no India and Pakistan in a way. When you're a migrant or an immigrant, I think there's a big dislocation with your sense of history and your heritage. So those stories were an important part of preserving some aspiration in us because if you don't see role models in front of you that resemble you, you need to be told that you came from something that did important things and had an impact in shaping the world. But they also speak to this idea of a kind of relative Hindu-Muslim unity and coexistence as typified in the title of Din-E-Ilahi. It's about expressing cross-communal solidarity and also tapping into a heritage and a narrative of empowerment.”
Cashmere is a record that speaks to all the anxieties of being young and different in a world full of polarities - anxieties around identity, around racism, around oppressive police states and life in an increasingly unequal world. Much of the sound and references will feel specific personal to South Asians in the diaspora and back home, starved as we are for any authentic representations of us in global pop culture. But what makes this record so important and special, is that it’s obvious brown-ness doesn’t stop it from appealing to outsiders who can’t tell a chicken biryani from a chicken farcha. These are brown stories but they are not brown stories. Cashmere is an excellent, intellectually stimulating and eminently relistenable record, but it’s biggest achievement is that it renders the universal experience through its brown-ness. It flips the script. Or as Riz puts it, “There's this kind of idea that on some level we can all connect with fundamental emotional truths even when the circumstances are different.”
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Bhanuj Kappal
Photographs by Erez Avissar